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  • Chris O'Rourke

La Traviata

Aebh Kelly (Flora) and Amanda Woodbury (Violetta) in INO's La Traviata. Image, Ros Kavanagh


There are operas, there are popular operas, and there's La Traviata (The Fallen Woman). Verdi’s classic which premiered unsuccessfully at La Fenice, Venice, in 1853 before going on to become one of the world’s best loved operas. A rollicking tale of a good girl with a bad reputation dying for love that puts the drama into melodrama, the opera into soap opera. Impassioned, improbable, wildly implausible, Francesca Maria Piave’s reversal rampant libretto, adapted from the play La dame aux camélias by Alexander Dumas fils, doesn’t require you to suspend disbelief so much as set it on fire then scatter the ashes. Opera’s eternal tension between the wiles of social convention and the wilds of a passionate heart running riot in Irish National Opera’s current production. Olivia Fuchs’s direction delivering an emotional rollercoaster ride constrained by conservative conventions. Framed by Katie Davenport’s stage within a stage design and carnival coloured costumes that prove mostly successful. Leaning into tradition, La Traviata whirls with a twist of datedness, like a musical hall Can-Can routine that brims with irresistible charm. Even as Verdi’s music and songs remain forever timeless.

Sorry Amanda Woodbury (Violetta) in INO's La Traviata. Image, Ros Kavanagh

Under Killian Farrell’s gently assured baton, Irish National Opera Orchestra play savoringly slow or trip along nicely. Meanwhile arias, duets, and chorus flow with bel canto ease as the lovelorn Alfredo pursues the adored Violetta at a Parisian watering hole, immortalised in the drinking song The Brindisi (Libiamo ne'lieti calici). Like watching an old silent movie, it’s stiff, clunky, full of outdated conventions and implausible antics. Yet its very datedness seduces you. Soprano Amanda Woodbury's Violetta and tenor Mario Chang's Alfredo both social butterflies who’ve been around and seen a few things, including better days as they approach their best by date. Violetta’s consumption speeding up her body clock like a frantic time bomb whilst Alfredo’s estrangement from his Father risks him being ostracised. His love for Violetta sparking a desire to leave the high life of Paris for a quiet life together in the country. Yet Violetta requires convincing. Her resistance to Alfredo's Un felice de, eterea proving fruitless given it could melt even the most hardened heart, echoing from offstage like a memory.

Mario Chang (Alfredo) in INO's La Traviata. Image, Ros Kavanagh

Initially, singing gets off to an unsettled start generally speaking, sounding thin, not rounded or robust enough in places. Yet confidence grows with each passing note, even as staging means passion looking strained for modern audiences. Which proves a victory of sorts. Fuchs’s staging might forgo physical intimacy for classical convention, but the effect heightens the sense of two awkward souls unsure how to express their true desires. Confirmed in the duets delighting Act Two between Violetta and baritone Leon Kim’s Giorgio, Alfredo’s father. Initially unsettling given its two singers sing together but sound apart. An unease compounded by Kim’s attempt to age his voice. Yet if space between the two is noticeable, it reflects the narrative’s insurmountable space as Giorgio asks Violetta to forego Alfredo and cease living in sin for his family’s honour and Alfredo’s reputation. Which Violetta reluctantly agrees to. A distance made all the more enriching when, in the final Act, one of the longest death scenes in opera, Violetta and Giorgio, along with Alfredo, sing movingly together as one. No spoilers here. Davenport’s hospital bed and Fuchs’s initial stage image foreshadowing the inevitable from the first curtain rise.

Amanda Woodbury (Violetta) in INO's La Traviata. Image, Ros Kavanagh

But there’s a bit to go beforehand. Violetta’s return to Paris and her old suitor Baron Douphol, baritone Graeme Collins, sees her trying to trick Alfredo into believing she no longer loves him. Whilst promenading at the vivacious Flora’s costume ball, Alfredo’s arrival and inevitable confrontation brings Act Two to a glorious, swooning close. Violetta, caught by a superb Irish National Opera Chorus who enchant and energise crowd scenes. Highlighting Fuchs’s love of pictorial composition and classic tableaux, which prove superb throughout. As does a divine Aebh Kelly, announcing herself as a mezzo-soprano to watch in what little stage time she enjoys as Flora. Yet La Traviata is all about Violetta. Soprano Amanda Woodbury rising to the challenge with aplomb. Violetta not singing so much as travelling the entire emotional spectrum, usually in the same scene. From carefree party girl to devoted lover. From domestic bliss to renouncing joy for a higher cause. From despairing heartbreak to spiritual redemption. If leaning into traditional conventions limits Woodbury’s physical expressiveness, Woodbury’s spry singing negotiates Violetta's emotive expressiveness superbly.

INO's La Traviata. Image, Ros Kavanagh

If, on the rollercoaster ride that is INO’s La Traviata, a rare note sounds like a wheel slipping loose from the rails, the whole stays on track right till the end. Richly textured by Katie Davenport’s costumes. Sumptuous, colourful, Davenport’s tailored twist on period style suggests bespoke Vivienne Westwood. Paul Keogan’s lush lighting adding further opulence. Yet Davenport’s cartoonish design doesn’t all, or always work, even as flickers of flair and signature touches help foreground individual characters. The costume party suggests Halloween at Coppers. The Baron an oversized leprechaun, Giorgio a Russian peasant, and Violetta’s black lace skirt and bloomers a less than flattering, hen-party look that never looks good on anyone. Yet individual blemishes aside, the whole is magnificently realised. Including Davenport’s stage within a stage set, capturing the music hall look and mood of the period. Even if the hovering bed looks peculiarly juvenile. Yet even when it doesn't all work, you never confuse Davenport with another designer. Musically, this is Verdi’s La Traviata. Visually, it’s Davenport’s. A designer growing in confidence and vision with each new production.

Aebh Kelly (Flora) and Ben McAteer (Marchese d'Obigny) in INO's La Traviata. Image, Ros Kavanagh

La Traviata marks the final production of INO’s current season. There are those who begrudge opera its hefty financial investment. Citing examples like Verona Opera Festival's 100th season opener Aida, which delivered an ugly, unjustifiable waste of ostentation. Yet with INO it is money well spent. INO’s commitment to innovation for the future married to reverence for the past addresses the twin demands of opera, whilst also developing Ireland's future opera stars. Like Davenport. Or soprano Megan O’Neill, illuminating the chorus whilst honing her craft. Yet it's simplier than that. Opera is one of life’s great love affairs. Like love, we are sometimes blind, or too accepting of its great and little failings. Like love, we can sometimes get moody wth it. Like love, it's supremely impractical, doesn’t make sense, and can be bloody expensive. Yet it is vital and joyous, even when bittersweet, turning tragedy to delight whilst it brings us all together. At what cost? How do you put a price on what’s priceless?

Amanda Woodbury (Violetta) in INO's La Traviata. Image, Ros Kavanagh

INO’s Artistic Director Fergus Shiel and Executive Director Diego Fasciati deserve to be hugely commended. La Traviata has been around since 1853. Verona Opera Festival is a century old. INO turns seven this year. It may appear older and wiser, but it’s a very young opera company. Holding its own on the international stage. Whose La Traviata risks brave, bold, and often beautiful choices, many of which succeed on the terms they set out for themselves. Passionately wild, unapologetically sumptuous, La Traviata might experience the occasional rattle, but it can still mesmerise completely while taking your breath away.

Roll on INO's next season.

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesca Maria Piave’s, adapted from the play La dame aux camélias by Alexander Dumas fils, is currently on tour.

For more information visit Irish National Opera.

This review relates to the performance on Thursday, May 23rd, at The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin. Primary roles are rotated during the tour. Check INO’s website (link above) for details, and for information on their forthcoming season.


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